W.Va. SC public financing bill fails

John O'Brien Apr. 1, 2009, 2:31pm


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - A proposal to use public funds to finance West Virginia Supreme Court campaigns has died in the state Legislature.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walt Helmick, a Democrat, dropped Senate Bill 311 from his committee's Tuesday's agenda because he did not want to interfere with work currently being done by Gov. Joe Manchin, the Charleston Gazette reported.

Manchin wants a commission to investigate changes to the state's judicial system. Helmick said enacting the bill would be "an impediment to the chief executive's offer," the report says.

Sen. Jeff Kessler, also a Democrat and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had introduced the bill as a response to recent storylines surrounding the Supreme Court -- Chief Justice Brent Benjamin's decision not to recuse himself from the $50 million case of a campaign supporter and Justice Menis Ketchum's 2008 campaign platform.

"I think there's a national explosion of money into judicial elections," said Kessler, first appointed to the Senate in 1997. "Without campaign finance disclosure laws in place to let the public who's paying for the ads, we're going to see more and more money poured into judicial campaigns.

"If you follow the money, you can see if the message is sincere or it is someone with an axe to grind."

A pool of about $4 million collected from various sources would be used by the candidates, who would have to raise a qualifying amount on their own.

During his 2008 campaign, Ketchum was a proponent of a public financing system like the one used in North Carolina.

"The current system, almost by definition, creates the appearance of a conflict of interest by having lawyers and other people involved with the court being the chief source of campaign contributions to all the candidates," Ketchum said.

"If we do not find a way to remove money from the judicial selection process we run the risk of having a judiciary dominated by very wealthy candidates or candidates that have the appearance of being funded by one side or the other."

Benjamin's decision has drawn attention from all directions, including former Supreme Court justices, current state attorneys general, businesses and the American Bar Association.

Hoping to unseat Warren McGraw in 2004, Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million in support of Benjamin through an independent expenditure group called "And For the Sake of the Kids."

When a $50 million verdict against Massey came before the Court in 2007, Benjamin twice refused to step down.

A Boone County jury had awarded $50 million to Harman Mining and owner Hugh Caperton in his case against Massey, which he claimed drove him out of business.

However, the state Supreme Court overturned the verdict in Nov. 2007 with a 3-2 vote, then again by the same vote in April after then-Chief Justice Spike Maynard recused himself.

Photographs had surfaced of Maynard and Blankenship on vacation in Monaco. The two, lifelong friends from Mingo County, said they were coincidentally vacationing at the same place at the same time, and Maynard provided documentation to show he paid his own way.

Caperton, throughout, complained that Benjamin should have taken himself off the case. Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher agreed, recusing himself in the hopes Benjamin would do the same.

Benjamin insists he had no personal stake in the outcome and couldn't control third-party spending. Caperton's appeal is currently being weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in early March.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at john@legalnewsline.com.

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